Unknown to Winnie, Victoria was still watching. She was just preoccupied, and it wasn’t as though she could have helped, and Tan had the right idea. Victoria doubted it would work, but why not?
The marines were coming up the stairs, clearing each floor. They stormed, shot every person they saw, and moved on. From many floors up, Victoria heard screaming.
At least they were saving her the trouble after she retook her throne. The floor she was on was clear indication of the trash with which Alex had been replacing her honest exemplars. She could smell the hard drugs. There was even graffiti along the walls as though the citadel dormitory was a backstreet alley.
An alarm sounded. A robotic voice announced a citadel-wide evacuation. In all spires, civilians were getting up from their desks while asking each other what was going on. The Deck levels were already in motion from the firefight aboard the ship. Everyone headed toward the bays to evacuate. The bridge staff would remain to run the ship. The exemplars also would not evacuate, because they would soon be dead.
But they didn’t know that yet. At the sound of the siren, they turned off their blaring musics and stopped their conversations. Some wandered into the hall as Victoria hurried by. They asked each other if anyone knew what was happening. No one did. Without ever having been trained for life aboard a citadel, none had any idea what they were supposed to do. As a mass, the exemplars moved hesitantly toward the stairwell.
The marines burst in. A spray of flechettes tore through the exemplars. Screams rang out. The crowd became a riot struggling to get away. Exemplars trampled fellow exemplars. Some drew weapons and fought back, but their simple guns did little against marine battle armor. Within seconds, all exemplars near the stairwell were dead or dying. The remaining stampeded down the corridor.
Victoria took refuge in a dorm alongside several exemplars who had weapons drawn.
“What the fuck is going on out there?” one said.
Another crept up and glanced out the door. Flechettes ricocheted by.
“Fuck.” The exemplar ducked back in. “It’s the marines, man. They’re fucking wasting everyone.”
“What? What the fuck?”
“Is Alex doing this? She has to be, right?”
“What? Why?” The exemplar looked genuinely hurt at the idea.
“I don’t know. She doesn’t trust us?”
“But… but… that bitch! I was loyal to her. I was loyal as shit.”
“Fuck, guys. They’re coming. Get ready.”
The exemplars clutched their weapons. They toppled their bunks for cover while others hid on either side of the door. None cared that Victoria was huddled with them, clutching her own rifle.
The marines split up by the stairwell. One group remained to ensure no one left, smaller groups set down hallways, breaking off into dorms as they passed. Three marines came toward Victoria.
They rounded the door frame. The exemplars fired first, useless bullets against thick armor. Victoria shot blindly while holding her rifle loosely. Neck shot. One marine dropped. A second marine opened fire on the men behind the bunks. The beds did nothing to stop the flechettes. The exemplars shredded and crumpled. The exemplars by the door jumped the marine, stabbing knives at joints of his armor. They all fell in struggle. The third marine entered, shot both men stabbing his ally, then fired at the barricade.
Victoria shot back. Four flechettes pierced his shoulder and neck, dropping him. Her rifle clicked empty.
The second marine was getting to his feet. Two exemplars fired at him fruitlessly. Victoria charged and tackled the marine back down. She blindly tore and grappled, but the marine’s strength overpowered the body of the young cadet she occupied. He drew his side arm and pointed it at her gut when an exemplar kicked him hard in the head.
The marine sprawled aside. Victoria groped for a weapon. Her hand landed on the handle of a fallen knife. Swinging it around, She plunged it into the marine as hard as she could. It pierced partially through his mesh armor, hardly penetrating any skin.
But his aura bloomed to life.
Grunting, the marine shoved Victoria off him. He shot the exemplar dead, then turned his sidearm on her. She grabbed his wrist. Between his armored glove and sleeve, she touched skin.
And now she was looking out a marine HUD at a very alarmed cadet. He hardly had time to realize his situation when Victoria shot him in the head. Turning her gun at the bed barricade, she fired six more times. Her mental visualization had told her generally where to aim, Tan’s micro-movements took care of the rest. She was the only one left alive in the room.
Victoria collected a rifle and ran to join the other marines. They they were going room to room exterminating the exemplars, and she fit right in.
With her situation taken care of, she turned her mind back to Winnie and the others…
Lieutenant Lucero indicated a touch pad. “And you can make gestures on this to control the swarm, but you have to—”
Tan slapped his hand on the pad and twiddled his fingers about. Outside, the swarm of spider planes jerked and shifted away from the orbiter.
“Right. Don’t do that. If you move the swarm too much that way, they’ll fall behind. At our speed, we have to keep them moving with the orbiter or else—”
Tan rolled a handful of dice, then toggled several console switches.
“Those, uh… don’t actually control the swarm. They—”
Tan rolled more dice and hit more buttons. The swarm outside lurched.
“Stop that. You just turned off the… stop!” Lucero pushed Tan aside and undid several of Tan’s adjustments. Tan ignored him and lit a cigarette.
“There’s no smoking in here,” Captain Rivera said.
“Dice say smoke,” Tan muttered. He didn’t look away from the controls.
“Okay,” said Lucero. “Don’t touch any of these. If you want manual control, just use these two pads. You can—”
Tan rolled dice and flipped switches Lucero just forbid.
“Jesus! Do you want the spiders crashing into each other? Leave the Autoform on. Look. The enemy swarm is firing at them now. Just… Leave the Goddamn Autoform on.”
“Captain?” Josephine prompted.
“Lieutenant!” said Rivera. “Let him be.”
“Fine! Just… you’re not even shooting back. Here.” The officer flipped one switch. “Do whatever! It’s only our lives.” He stepped back.
Outside the Venezia, the spider swarms were now engaging one another. Three hundred spider planes moved forward as one, firing upon a swarm of sixty drones that swerved about like drunken bees. Tan was losing planes every second. At least they fired back, but for every enemy spider that dropped, Tan lost six.
He rolled the dice, dropped his hand onto the control pad, and flopped it about like a dying fish. The swarm lurched, moving tangentially from both the opposing swarm and the Venezia. Several spider planes bumped one another. They were now out of range of the enemy swarm.
“What are you doing?” yelled Lucero.
The enemy swarm broke in two. One swarm pursued Tan’s planes, the other continued its push against wind resistance to reach the Venezia. By now, the defending swarm could never catch up in time. Nothing stood between the Venezia and over a hundred enemy spiders.
Tan rolled again, dragging hard on his cigarette. This time, he merely kept one hand laying on the touch pad. His swarm kept moving tangentially, moving up windstream of the enemy ships. The enemy swarm pursuing them moved to get in between.
Lucero had to walk away. Tan’s erratic behavior was too much for him to watch, but the mystery proved worse. He marched back.
Again, Tan rolled with his free hand. As he read the dice, he moved to lift his cigarette from his lips. It slipped into his lap. He jerked, sliding his hand across the control pad as he squirmed, snatching for his smoke.
The spider swarm veered. They hurled directly toward the enemy orbiters. No longer moving against the atmosphere, they accelerated wildly relative to the Venezia. The pursuing swarm easily took advantage of this, adjusting course to speed alongside Tan’s swarm. They synchronized completely. The enemy swarm tore Tan’s to shreds. Dozens of ships fell per second.
“No!” Lucero lunged for the controls. Tan batted him away while fishing for his cigarette. It didn’t matter.
The swarm passed the enemy orbiters. There were only eleven left at that moment, and they shot by so quickly that they didn’t have time to shoot once. Just like that, the swarm careened off into the distance, out of the fight for good.
Except Tan’s drones hadn’t had Autoform on. They had no course correction, making them nothing more than expensive meteors. The spider drones guarding the enemy orbiters easily navigated around the expensive shrapnel. However, the orbiters relied upon their deflection repulsers to push projectiles out of the way, and the spiders were traveling far too fast and had far too much mass for them to deflect them with 100% certainty. As chance would have it, two spider drones had collision courses too direct to be fully deflected.
They each glanced an orbiter. At their speeds, it was enough. Explosions of steel and pressurized gas emitted from both. The ships careened off course. One spiraled toward earth. The other crunched into another ship, causing it to explode outright. The resulting shower of shrapnel was too dense for the other ships to do anything about. One got hit on the nose with debris. It’s hull peeled like a banana skin. The remaining two ships took light damage to their wings, but it was enough for their ships to drop from their course.
The enemy spider drones were now within range of the Venezia. Any of them could have fired, but none did. Winnie saw nothing but chaos inside the surviving three ships as the crews struggled to evacuate. The confirm order for the swarm strike went ignored. Within moments, the enemy swarms drifted passed the Venezia, they would not be catching back up.
“What?” said Lucero. He stared in astonishment. “Three down and… Jesus. You actually managed to—” He checked again. “They’re gone. We’re out.”
Several men cheered. A few clapped Tan on the back.
Tan took out another cigarette, lit it with the butt of his old one, and ignored everyone.